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Becoming a production assistant (or PA) for a film shoot is a common way that many begin their careers in the filmmaking industry, especially if one is interested in pursuing an aspect of film production.
As such, the position may appear straightforward at first glance. Obviously there's going to be a lot of moving equipment around, getting people coffee, etc.
However, having been a (quite clumsy at first) PA on several shoots, I believe there are some general rules that can contribute to a smoother ride on set. Here are the most essential:
#1: Listen and ask.
A production assistant's duties often require specific equipment for specific people. However, if a PA were to try and memorize the entire catalogue of cameras, lights, props, tools, and talent on set, they would likely explode.
It's far more imperative that a PA is attentive and takes in as much information and context as possible in the moment. A PA really only requires knowledge that's necessary and relevant to complete their tasks on set.
#2: Learn the lingo.
"Grab me a C47," an assistant camera told me on one shoot. I nodded my head and ran off, looking for some elegant computer part or camera lens labeled as such.
As I scrambled for through flashy control panels, I heard the assistant camera say he just used a binder clip instead. A binder clip? In place of a C47?
As it turned out, "C47" is film-speak for a clothespin. I was searching through $30,000 worth of equipment for something you could pick up on discount from Michael's.
The film industry comes with a lot of confusing and random slang that one just has to become accustomed to as a production assistant. I highly suggest looking up some common film set vocabulary before your shoot; there are lots of detailed online resources for all the weird terminology that'll come up on set.
#3: Walk with a purpose.
Appearance is very powerful, and loitering around is never impressive. Something I realized very quickly as a PA was that "free time" doesn't really exist on set. There is always some activity to be putting one's efforts into, and the crew knows that.
In the past, I've solved this problem by taking lunch orders early, tidying up the equipment, asking cast/crew if they need assistance, and making sure everyone has enough water. Speaking of which...
#4: Stay hydrated and stretch when possible.
Being a production assistant can be physically taxing; it usually requires a lot of heavy lifting and running. As such, one should treat the role as a workout and hydrate/stretch accordingly. Bringing water, band aids, and a few bags to help with the job is never a bad idea.
A PA should always be aware of their physical state and not be afraid to tell someone if they have trouble moving objects. Stretched muscles are nothing to laugh at (especially when using heavy tools), and health is more important than appearing capable on set.
#5: When in doubt, ask permission.
Many departments—such as camera and lighting—have their own toolkits and don't appreciate a PA using their equipment for another department on set. This includes minute things like tape, clips, and batteries. Be sure to ask the permission of someone in the department before borrowing their supplies.
Some other smaller points:
- If you want to pursue a career in film production, don't be afraid to ask the crew questions about the industry. Many crew members are happy to discuss how they reached the job they have now.
- Mistakes are part of the job. Even the director will mess up now and then. Don't be hard on yourself for learning and growing on set.
- You are part of the crew. You deserve the same food and breaks as everyone else working on the shoot.
Good luck in all your future endeavors on set!